After the gun bill failed in the Senate Wednesday, a visibly upset President Obama placed much of the blame squarely on the shoulders of the National Rifle Association, saying the gun group and its allies "willfully lied" to the public. The White House portrayed the gun rights organization as all-powerful, all-responsible.
But it wasn't always this way.
For decades, the NRA was a marksmanship, hunting and safety group, hosting mostly recreational activities for gun enthusiasts. But fast forward to 1977 in Cincinnati, where more than 2,000 NRA members held a conference to veer the organization in a very different direction. By the end of a marathon, overnight session, the old guard of the NRA was out and a new guard was in – along with a bylaw change that made defense of Second Amendment central to the group's mission, according to the encyclopedia "Guns in American Society."
To meet that new mission, the group increased funding for the Institute for Legislative Action, the lobbying arm that today has a budget of some $10 million in 2010. That year the NRA had 781 full time employees, 125,000 volunteers, and revenues of $227.8 million. And that tectonic shift away from safety and recreation to smash mouth lobbying and politics has left many gun owners looking for a group that will represent their interests.
Dan Baum, an investigative reporter and author of the recent book "Gun Guys: A Road Trip" about gun culture in the U.S., says he gets five or six emails a day from people who say: "I'm a gun guy, and I can't stand the NRA."
The NRA has four million members. There are an estimated 100 million gun owners in America.
So if the NRA doesn't represent "gun guys," then who does?
"NRA is the 900 pound gorilla in the room," says Dave Workman, a senior editor at TheGunMag.com and communications director for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which claims to have 650,000 members. He is also a former board member of the NRA. Workman rattles off five other gun owner groups: the Second Amendment Foundation, his Citizens Committee, Gun Owners of America, the National Association for Gun Rights, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.
Every one of these groups professes to represent gun owners. But that doesn't mean they all agree.
"Some people thought the world ended when they didn't stop the filibuster," says Workman of recent moves by conservative senators to block debate on new gun laws. "But then there are a lot of gun owners who are quite liberal on social issues. There's a segment of gun people who actually voted for Obama, who traditionally vote democrat, who are union guys or teachers or whatever. … The gun community is not a monolithic group."
That became abundantly clear last Sunday, when the Citizens Committee came out in support of a compromise background check law drafted by Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., while most of the gun community decried it. On gun forums like the HighRoad.org, gun owners worried that background checks would mean mandatory registration.
"The FEDs will come back and say: 'We cannot implement your new law unless you allow us to register all firearms,' " wrote one user. "So the inevitable next step to mandating background check on all firearm sales will be a demand to Congress that all firearms be registered, without which the law will be impossible to enforce. Registration is a VERY bad idea."
Alan Gottlieb, the chairman of Citizens Committee and the founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, sang an entirely different tune at a Portland, Oregon, golf club event Friday, when he urged gun owners to recognize that the background checks were reasonable and that it wasn't a national registration system.
"I think we give an inch but get back a yard," he says of the bill.
Gottlieb blames the resistance to the legislation by other gun groups on a "toxic environment" created in part by calls for an assault weapons ban by President Obama and Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif.
"When you have that, you're going to back everyone into a corner. When you attack fundamental rights then people don't want to give an inch," Gottlieb says.
The idea of a community under attack has become a common refrain among gun users in the months since the shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Baum, who is a liberal Democrat from Boulder, Colo., says the rhetoric of gun control groups towards gun owners in the wake of the shooting has been "unimaginably offensive."
"I read a lot after Sandy Hook with columnists and pundits saying we have this terrible gun culture," Baum says. "And then the gun guys say: 'Wait a minute, that's me you're talking about. And you're saying I'm responsible for Sandy Hook somehow.' That's like the old days saying gays were responsible for AIDs."
A Pew poll in January showed that for the first time, a majority of Americans thought the federal government was a threat to their personal rights and freedoms, with about six-in-ten gun-owning households saying they now felt that way.
The same month, the NRA – who did not respond to multiple request for comments for this story – released a statement saying the White House has an "agenda to attack the Second Amendment."
But while the gun community seems to agree on that point, many still don't want the NRA to represent them – with some even saying the NRA doesn't go far enough.
Dudley Brown, a gun lobbyist who runs the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a Colorado grassroots group, and the National Association for Gun Rights, which claims more than 3 million members, says "there is a lot of anger towards the NRA right now" – including from his groups. After a filibuster to kill the gun background check bill failed earlier this month, Brown blamed the NRA for not getting more involved in the fight because Manchin and Toomey, who brokered the gun bill, had "A" ratings from the association for his pro-gun rights policies.
Others, however, think the NRA is too out there, too extreme.
"Gun culture is disappearing, and I think that's partly the NRA's fault," says Baum. "The NRA puts an angry middle-aged white face on gun culture. It drives away people of color, women, young people."
When people think of a face of the NRA, they likely think of Wayne LaPierre, the 64-year-old, white, executive vice president of the NRA, who has gone on dozens of talk shows since the shooting at Newtown to slam gun control proponents.
And while the NRA is today able to command the president's attention, it is finding itself blocked elsewhere. In schools, for example, the NRA has been trying for years to implement its "Eddie Eagle" safety program for kids. The safety program is simple: it tells kids who find a gun to "stop," "don't touch," "leave the area," and then "tell an adult."
Pretty simple logic, but schools won't take it.
"The NRA cannot get this program into schools," says Baum, who says teachers have expressed the sentiment that they "don't want the NRA coming into my school getting my kids all excited about guns."
Instead, the safety role now belongs to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which primarily represents the gun industry but makes firearm safety and education a priority. The foundation's Project Child Safe Program has arguably been far more effective than "Eddie Eagle," having distributed some 36 million firearm safety kits nationwide.
Bill Brassard, a spokesman for NSSF, says he describes the group's purview as promoting "safety… gun responsibility… and participation in hunting and all shooting sports at all age levels."
The "all age levels" phrase is key, because in recent years, data has shown that gun ownership is declining among young people. The people who are buying guns are, as Baum described, overwhelmingly white and old and male. A Pew study released in March 2013 found that men are three times as likely as women to own a gun, that ownership of guns among whites was almost double ownership among blacks or Hispanics, and that only 16 percent of adults under age 30 own a gun, while that percentage nearly doubles for adults over the age of 50. Some question whether in several decades we will even be having this gun debate at all.
"It's like how a flower, in the last 15 minutes of its life, gets very fragrant," says Baum. "Part of the reason that gun culture is so angry, extreme and noisy is that it knows it's on its way out. It's one last panicked display."
Gun rights groups hate hearing this and Baum has taken heat every time he's said it. Among those who disagree is Gottlieb, who believes the demographics weren't good five years ago but that the pendulum has now swung back.
"There's a lot more young people getting involved in buying guns. We've seen a significant shift. They're showing up at our meetings," says Gottlieb, who credits the change to the return of young veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan familiar with firearms, and the interest sparked by guns in online video games. Gottlieb says he's also worked to diversify the movement by involving gay and lesbian groups like the Pink Pistols, whose mottos are "pick on someone your own caliber" and "armed gays don't get bashed."
He notes that the number of women buying guns has also increased in recent years, with the number of female buyers of guns for personal defense increasing 83.2 percent in 2009, according to the NSSF.
And there is no doubt the gun community saw a resounding win Wednesday, when the gun legislation failed in the Senate. While acknowledging his loss, President Obama called the decision just "round one." Gun control groups vowed to fight on. Meanwhile the NRA released a statement applauding the "hard work and leadership" of the Senate, and gun forums cheered the victory.
A Second Amendment Foundation life member wrote on the HighRoad.org that the gun community was coalescing better than it had in the past. "There are far more of us, we have access to better information, we're far better organized on our own," wrote the member. "And we'll be far more active in removing any politician from office that wants to restrict firearms, magazines or ammunition we might want to own."